As the weather gets colder, many of us are thinking about moving our food production indoors. Hydroponics is a unique way of growing food indoors year-round, and can be done with completely organic inputs. While not yet approved for use under the National Organic Program, gardeners and growers who aren’t certified may benefit from these techniques. Since we don’t have much experience with hydroponics, we asked long-time customer Fullbloom Hydroponics what they recommend for people interested in getting started.
What is Hydroponics?
Leafy greens NFT hydroponics setup Photo: Ryan Somma
Hydroponics is a type of indoor agriculture. Plants are grown in containers filled with soilless growing media and receive nutrients dissolved in water that they’re irrigated with on a regular schedule. Hydroponics has the unique benefit of being possible year-round in virtually any climate, regardless of light and temperature levels. It has become a popular method of growing commercial crops, particularly lettuce and tomatoes, in Northern climates during the winter. It can also be almost completely automated, so that very little maintenance is required to produce bountiful fresh produce all year round. The first thing to learn about hydroponics is which plant varieties are best suited to a soilless growing system.
Plants Suited to Indoor Hydroponic Growing Systems
Herbs growing in an NFT system with continuous shallow stream of water Photo: Ryan Somma
Most hydroponic setups are indoors or in greenhouses so it is good to stick with plants that like warm temperatures and high humidity levels. Cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, and most types of peppers are a perfect choice to start with. Try varieties like the Silver Slicer
Cucumber, Bronco Bush Bean, Gold Nugget Cherry Tomato, or Shishito Japanese Pepper. They are a nice treat because they aren’t readily available at your local supermarket, plus they are very reliable, productive plants.
Leafy greens and herbs also tend to do extremely well in hydroponic systems. They grow very quickly and don’t take up too much room in your growing area. Try out Rainbow Chard, Red Oak Leaf Lettuce, and Rosie Basil for some interesting varieties that will add a splash of color to your plate.
Easy Setups for Getting Started with Hydroponics
Small homemade deepwater culture (DWC) setup Photo: Ted Major
There are a number of basic hydroponic systems that are easy to set up and perfect for beginners. Drip systems are easy to control and cheap to make. All you need is a growing medium that doesn’t hold too much moisture, a water pump, and some drip irrigation emitters. Another good choice for beginners is a Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) system. A NFT system basically consists of a small gutter which has a shallow, continuous stream of nutrient-rich water flowing past the roots. An ebb and flow system is similar to an NFT, the main difference being that ebb and flow setups are flooded with water a few times a day and then drained. Whatever system you use, you will need some kind of reservoir to hold the water that passes through these systems.
Organic Growing Mediums for Hydroponics
Many growers are committed to producing organic, environmentally-friendly produce. If you are looking to keep your hydroponics setup completely organic, you have a number of great growing mediums to choose from.
Coconut Coir and Coconut Chips
Compressed coconut fiber growing medium Photo: hydroponics.com
Coconut is a fantastic choice for organic hydroponic growers. It is completely pH-neutral, which is important as growing mediums that change pH levels can affect how well your plants absorb nutrients. It also has a great water-to-air ratio which means you won’t have to worry about overwatering and drowning your roots.
Sand is an often-overlooked organic growing medium that produces great results. It holds minimal amounts of water so it is often mixed with other mediums in systems where there is not a constant flow of water.
Rice Hulls and Wood Chips
Rice hulls and wood chips are two of the most environmentally friendly organic growing mediums, but have very different properties. Rice hulls are great because they provide good drainage and are a product that would normally be thrown away. Wood chips store a high level of water so they are good for hydroponic systems that don’t have a steady stream of water, such as ebb and flow setups.
Benefits and Challenges of Hydroponic Growing
Commercial-scale production of basil and cucurbits with deepwater culture hydroponics (DWC)
There are a number of benefits to using hydroponic systems for growing your fruits and vegetables. They are highly productive, which means you can grow fewer plants but still get higher yields. Due to the nutrient-rich nature of hydroponic systems, plants are able to devote more energy to producing food as opposed to searching for nutrients.
One thing that is important to keep in mind is that plants in a hydroponic system are usually grown in very clean conditions. Particularly if you are only growing one crop, any pests accidentally introduced into your growing area can take over quickly in the warm, predator-free environment. But as long as you are diligent in cleaning what you bring into your growing area, pest infestations will be much less common than outdoors. Depending on your situation, hydroponics may offer a growing system that is more efficient, more practical, and more easily-controlled than outdoor growing.
For more information about hydroponic systems, visit www.fullbloomhydroponics.com