HYDRO means water, PONOS means labor

I talked about wanting to ‘have a go at hydroponics’ back in the Fall & we got going this spring! To be truthful, Stuart has been doing most of the research & I’ve got the job of growing plants! He’s my Gardening Engineer and I love him for everything he does for me.

One of the main reasons I became interested in experimenting with Hydroponics is that I’m not actually very good at watering plants. My flower beds contain native and xeriscape plants that are pretty much on their own once they’ve become established. I find that my reluctance to use water extends to my veggies which sometimes don’t do very well when the weather is very dry!! I’ve got better with that this year.

Why Hydroponics?

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants that has a long history – from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon! The Aztecs, the Ancient Chinese did it! They’ve even grown veggies on the International Space Station using Hydroponics!

  • Plants can be grown anywhere – outside, inside, in a greenhouse
  • Water use is reduced compared with traditional veggie gardens.
  • More efficient use of water beneficial in dry climates – like S Texas
  • Plants grow faster than in soil
  • Fewer pests because there are no soil borne pests to deal with

It’s not all good news though – there can be high set up costs to get you going. And if you’re not careful you’ll have problems with air borne pests & water borne diseases like root rot.

One of the biggest (for me) differences between conventional gardening is that much more attention needs to be paid to what’s in your water. In this area we are living on limestone so my well water is very alkaline (high pH). Plants like things a little more acid (lower pH) so I have to used a product to reduce the waters pH. And then you have to add nutrients to the water to give the plants what they need to actually grow, bloom and fruit. Plant needs actually change from initial growth to producing fruit & you have to change what you add to the water to match that need. The photos below show what I got with my Emily’s Garden Kit (see below).

Hydroponics – so many choices!

How many of you have looked into doing hydroponics for growing your veggies and immediately got confused with all the choices and variations that are available?

Hydroponics is growing plants without soil – all the necessary nutrients are added to the water.

Hydroponics vs Aquaponics – these growing systems are not the same. Aquaponics is a closed system where fish poop provides the nutrients for the growing plants. I think this is what Stuart wants to do long term – me, I’m not ready for this yet! I also mention Aeroponics which is a type of Hydroponics where the roots are sprayed with a mist of water/nutrients

Basic Shopping List

  • Container for plants/water (mason jar, 5 gal bucket, large plastic tote)
  • Plastic Pipe, joints
  • Net pots or similar
  • Medium to support plants – lots of choices
    • Vermiculite/Perlite 50/50 mix
    • Hydrogel crystals
    • Growstones – made from recycled glass
    • Hydroton – clay balls that have been heated to a high temp
  • Aquarium pump – optional depending on system you use
  • Aquarium bubble stones – optional depending on system you use
  • pH adjuster solution – pH down in the Texas Hill Country
  • Nutrient solutions

Kratky Method

The Kratky Method is one of the simplest and cheapest ways to get into Hydroponics. You can use a mason jar on your window sill or a 5 gallon bucket on your patio or balcony. The young plant in a net pot is put in a pot with support medium. The outer container is filled with water to the base of this pot. As the plant roots grow down the water level with go down too. Depending on what you’re growing the water level might need to be topped up. And that’s basically it – no pumps, no wiring. Set up, watch, check, harvest, repeat!. I found this pdf which gives pretty simple instructions to set this sort of system up

I set up one 5 gal bucket with a pepper plant. and you can see from the photo that it’s going very well. It’s really easy to set up and monitor. I’ve only had a couple of problems with this system. The first is that I cut the hole in the lid a tiny bit too big and as the plant grew & got heavier it would tend to drop through! The quick & easy cure was a cut down pool noodle around the hole. The only other problem was when we had 8″ rain over a couple of days – the bucket was overflowing with water! What I had to do was tip some of the rainwater out and re-balance the remaining water for pH and nutrients.

Deep Water System

To get me going I bought a kit, “Emily’s Garden System“, which gave me everything in one box to get going. You can make this sort of system in a 5 gal bucket too! The base of your pots are permanently in water and an air pump working through a couple of air stones makes sure that the water is constantly and well oxygenated.

Seedlings did not do well in this system – the outer pots are pretty big and don’t allow enough ‘suck’ of water to the top. Larger plants quickly started thriving – one starter tomato plant from HEB (carefully washed soil out of the roots), and some larger squash & pepper seedlings.

Early in Spring I only needed to check water levels every week or so. Now that temperatures are in the 90s I have to check every 1-2 days. Of course the plants are quite large now, are fruiting and needing more water anyway. It’s still quick & easy to maintain proper water levels. The whole thing is pretty crowded but everything is healthy. I put a cage around the tomato for support and am training the squash over the back to give more room for the peppers. A hydroponics expert might call it a bit of a disaster but I’m quite happy with it!!

Aeroponics System

A large tote with lid is what we used to set up our aeroponics system. Definitely a more ‘intensive’ system to get going & not generally recommended for beginners! That didn’t put us off!! Small nozzles set around the bottom of plant pots spray water at the roots using a timer ie 10 mins ON/ 5 mins OFF.

Apart from the labor intensive set up the biggest problem has been blocked nozzles. One day I noticed that some of the plants were wilting – some of the nozzles were blocked and those plant roots weren’t getting water sprayed on them. As I write this the ‘spray assembly’ has been removed so that I can unblock the nozzles. To keep the plants going I simply filled up the tote with water (plus nutrients) and turned it into a temporary Kratky Tote! Can usually find a creative solution to any problem if you think hard enough.

My Thoughts

There are dozens and dozens of ways to grow plants without soil and we’ve just tried three ways as an experiment.

The easiest system is certainly the Kratky Bucket – quick and cheap to set up. And you could easily make a stand for multiple buckets that would still be quite attractive. I drive my husband crazy because I want stuff to work in my garden, but also want it to look ‘aesthetically pleasing’!

I do like the Aeroponics Tote primarily because it’s pretty easy to grow plants from seed this way, but the nozzles blocking make it difficult to maintain. However it wasn’t cheap to set up after getting all the pipes, joints, nozzles, pump etc

My Deep Water System, Emily’s Garden is doing quite well now but it was frustrating trying to keep smaller seedlings alive at the beginning. It wouldn’t be difficult to make a homemade version but it was useful, if expensive having everything in one box as a starter kit!

Where I think we’ll go long term is a system called flood and drain -my Gardening Engineer believes this is possibly the best for growing veggies in our hot climate. Whatever we decide we will surely have more adventures experimenting….

Stay cool and keep yourself and your plants hydrated!

Caroline xo


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