The following articles are excerpts from two of Larry's books, Hydroponic Gardening The Very Easy Way and Creating Sustainable Victory Gardens: How to integrate hydroponics and soil for year-round-gardening the very easy way.
GETTING STARTED: THREE EASY STARTS
These easy-starts use the passive deep-water culture systems. No electricity is required. There are no air pumps, no air lines, and no bubblers. Plants grow in air. You provide that air by maintaining an air space between the bottom of the cover and the bottom of your net pot or wide-lip basket (WLB). Use only hydroponic fertilizer at one teaspoon per gallon of cold water.
Look for the numbers 1, 2, 4, or 5 on the bottom of buckets and totes and Schedule 40 (or Sch 40) on the sides of PVC tubes. The number 2 is the most versatile. Most big-box stores sell containers with the numbers 4 or 5. All of these numbers indicate that the container is food safe.
NET POTS AND WIDE-LIP BASKETS
These versatile units contain your seedling and the substrate you intend to use. Use the 2” net pots to ….
Use the larger WLBs to….
Hydroponics is not just for indoor gardens. You can use your system indoors and outdoors. If you garden outside, you have sunlight. When you garden indoors you need light, preferably artificial light. Use energy-efficient and cost-effective LED lights.
There are many options available to you. You can purchase clip-on units, or 48” units that you can suspend from the ceiling, shelving units, or portable PVC light frames. If you have space limitations and do not want to spend a lot of money, nor want to assemble or build anything, consider the clip-on LED unit. Some models have two, three, or four adjustable wants. They can provide a complete range of light temperatures (Kelvin) and have an estimated life of between 36,000 and 50,000 hours.
Micro-greens tend to cost on the expensive side. Grow your own. You can grow up to 32-36 plants in a standard 1020 tray with an insert and 2”-net pots or up to 12 plants in a 10-gallon tote.
1020 Trays. Fill each net pot with your substrate (80% perlite and 20% peat or coconut coir). Plant your seeds. Initially, top water to facilitate germination, then add the nutrient solution to the bottom of the 1020 tray to keep the seedlings growing and thriving. Keep the plants in the net pots-1020 trays and harvest over multiple months. Done.
10-Gallon Totes. Fill each net pot with your substrate (80% perlite and 20% peat or coconut coir). Plant your seeds. Initially, top water to facilitate germination. When the root system extends through the slots in the net pot, transfer the net pots to your tote and fill the tote so the nutrient solution touches the bottom of the net. Done.
Note: you only need one teaspoon of hydroponic fertilizer per gallon of cold water.
Start easy and quick. Start with salad greens—arugula, lettuces, Asian greens, chards, basil—then move on to larger longer maturing varieties such as tomatoes and cucumbers when you feel comfy. You have seen different plants growing in soil. You can also grow them hydroponically in buckets. A five-gallon food-safe bucket will support one tomato plant or two-three-cucumber plants. (Note: If you use the buckets to grow plants in soil, make sure you drill some drainage holes first).
A substrate(s) is a medium or media. It serves as a soil substitute in that it functions to support the root system. Hydroponic substrates are organic and inert.
Tere are different types of substrates—perlite, peat, coconut coir, rockwool cubes, grow plugs and LECA (Hydroton).
Perlite is heated glass or quartz sand. Peat (Peat Moss, Sphagnum Moss) comes from bogs and is acidic. Coconut Coir is made from frayed or ground up coconut husks. Hydroton or LECA are clay pellets. Rockwool cubes are made by heating and spinning silica-based rock (think cotton-candy). Grow plugs are stabilized propagation media and do not contain micro- or macro-nutrients. The hydroponic fertilizer supplies those nutrients to the substrate medium.
The standard substrate mix for starting seeds is Perlite (80%) and Peat or Coconut Coir (20%). You can direct seed when you use rockwool cubes or grow plugs. You do not need to use the perlite/peat combination. You cannot start seeds in LECA. Use it when you transfer seedlings to a WLB, for example.
All plants and living things need food to survive and thrive. Hydroponic fertilizer is one example of plant food. You can choose from a range of companies and their respective products. Most fertilizers require that you use only one teaspoon per cold water. You can adjust that ratio to accelerate growth based on what the company recommends. You can use hydroponic fertilizer with your soil-based plants.
All fertilizers, hydroponic or soil-based, list their ingredients in this order: NPK.
NPK. N or nitrogen promotes vegetative or leaf-growth. Use a fertilizer with a high N for varieties such as lettuces, beet or turnip greens, chards, and spinach. P or phosphorus promotes flower and fruit development. Use a fertilizer with a high P with tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes. K promotes the overall well-being of the plant.
Plants grow in air, not in soil. The soil supports the root-plant structure. The perlite/peat or coconut coir substrate mix serves the same purpose. With a passive deep-water culture system, you do not need to add air through an air stone. You do not need a pump. You simply maintain an air space.
You can start your seeds directly into the substrate mix. Once the root system starts to protrude through the slots on the net pots, you can transfer them in your containers—buckets, totes, PVC tubes, gutters, or Styrofoam sheets.
Allow the bottom of the net pot to touch the surface of the nutrient solution. A two-inch air space is automatically provided from the bottom of the net pot to the bottom of the container cover. There will be a larger air space if you use WLBs. As the roots develop and the plant grows, the water level will drop and the air space will become larger.
So long as at least one-third to one-half of the roots are in contact with the nutrient solution the plant will continue to develop and then process becomes maintenance free. Maintain the airspace.
Active hydroponic systems require frequent water changes. Passive systems do not. Larry recommends changing out the nutrient solution at least once a month. Between a complete water change, you may be tempted to top-off the water level. You do not need to add any fertilizer when you top off. Adding fertilizer at this point could prove to be too strong for the plants. Only add fertilizer when you do a complete water change.
Note: Check the water level periodically. Again, keep a third or half of the root system in the nutrient solution.
WATER CHANGES AND FERTILIZER
With a complete water (nutrient solution) change, make sure you remove all the water. You can then add the appropriate amount of hydroponic fertilizer based on the amount of cold water you add. That is, if you use a 10-gallon tote and you estimate that about 5-gallons have been taken up by the plant, you only need to add 5-gallons of cold water and 5-teaspoons of fertilizer. You do not need to refill the container to the water level when you initially set up the tote.
INSTALLING AN AUTOMATIC WATER LEVEL GAGE
When you garden in a bucket you can lift the cover to check the water level. Or you can install a tube that will allow you to do that automatically without having to lift the cover. Larry recommends that you buy the kit, which includes all the components—grommet, right-angle fitting, and tube. A clear tube will form algae. A blue tube will not.
You will need a drill and a ¾” drill bit to create the hole for the grommet. After drilling the hole, say about 1” from the bottom of the bucket, insert the smaller end of the grommet into the bucket, insert the right-angle fitting, attach the tube. The water level inside the bucket will automatically rise to that same height in the tube. Done.
You can easily complement your soil-based garden with a hydroponic system. They are not mutually exclusive. One advantage is to garden throughout the year. Other benefits include but are not limited to the following…
There are environmental advantages.
Hydroponic gardening requires a behavior change for some people. Grow plants in water? No soil? Yes, all true. It is not a fad. There are many benefits, such as being able to garden during the chilly winter months. Another is its portability. But, in all fairness, and as a public service, Larry feels compelled to list the many disadvantages to hydroponic gardening.
Here are some disadvantages, but not limited to the following …
Hydroponics has its disadvantages. But throw caution to the wind. Give it a shot!