Hydroponic Growing. The Future Demystified.
A method of growing plants that saves water and also opens the door for new farming frontiers. Both on and off grid.
When you hear “Hydroponics” the first thing that might come to mind is clandestine cannabis growing. Though many people do grow cannabis with hydroponic systems, more and more people are using the system to grow veggies, fruit, ornamentals, and rare plants both indoors and outdoors.
With climate change already ravaging the planet and disrupting traditional farming techniques we need to find ways of growing food that save water, conserve energy, use a small footprint of space, and is scalable with populations.
Using hydroponic farms we can radically decentralize food production. Shifting from a crop being grown in California and trucked to New Hampture to food production at the extreme local level. Making the food system hyper-local and close to where the people eating the food will live. It also provides the ability to grow crops in highly dense urban areas that may not have the land space to dedicate to farming. As climates warm and weather patterns change we will see crazier storms that will end up destroying crops. If we also grow crops indoors we can keep food production going even when the weather will not permit certain crops from growing.
This is a supplement to traditional gardening. Not everyone will have access to a living space to do this or may live off the land. We need to switch from farming based off profit to permaculture and methods that retain the little water we have. We also need to create resilient systems of permaculture farming when we can plant outdoors and vertical and indoor farming to make sure crops stay alive even in inhospitable conditions.
Brian at harvestingrainwater.com has an amazing book on building berms, swales and trenches to make rain gardens. Based of the work of Mr. Phiri from Zimbabwe and other methods of rainwater collection and use in Africa.
Benefits of Hydroponics vs Traditional Soil Growing
Fewer pests to deal with if grown indoors. Better chances of a yield that may otherwise be eaten by insects or birds.
Non-reliance on pesticides due to lower pests and issues that come from soil use.
More utilization of space, using vertical farms a warehouse in a dense urban area can produce an incredible amount of fresh food.
Better utilization of water as evaporation does not wick away the water before being absorbed by the plants like in traditional farming.
Ability to recycle goods and put them to new use, to grow food instead of ending up in a landfill.
Climate-controlled environments mean you can grow food in any season and with proper setup be able to grow food in situations where the electrical grid is down during the middle of Winter (Ahem Texas).
TLDR for my ADHD friends at the end!
Also kind of a step by step video list on getting started and where I got my ideas from.
What Is Hydroponics?
Hydroponics is growing plants with water and a solution of nutrients instead of soil. It is slightly more complicated than that but at its most basic level, you are growing a plant in water (hence the prefix hydro).
Don’t let people confuse you or companies sell you a product. Doing this is pretty simple when you boil the core components down. You need a vessel to hold the water, water soluble nutrient solution, some plants with some roots and sunlight. You can buy off-the-shelf hydroponics systems for a lot of money, but they are all pretty much a gimmick.
On grid vs Off Grid Hydroponic Operations
One downside to hydroponics indoors is the reliance on artificial light. As indoor systems grow, the bigger amount of electricity they draw and because in the US a large amount of electricity is produced with fossil fuels, your green endeavors inadvertently may add to the issue at hand. (Though I also want to stress, you as an individual will never come close to producing pollution corporations produce by running grow lights.)
Off grid solar panel systems can help detach costs from daily use. I tend to think of it as harnessing the sun and just redirecting it indoors. It is not “free power” because you need panels and batteries and wiring but it does pay for itself depending on your usage. Might make a guide soon about setting up small-scale off-grid solar operations soon.
You can also just place these outdoors for natural sunlight. Just need to be sure you protect the water from mosquitos and keep the vessels covered to thwart algae.
High Energy Use vs Low Energy Use methods.
Most hydroponics guides will say you need aeration to the roots to grow good healthy plants. While it is true oxygen needs to get to the roots of plants, you don’t need to add air stones to systems. You can use airstones to basically make bubbles in the water and keep the water moving around or use the Kratky method. Doctor Kratky is a scientist working in so-called Hawaii and runs an experimental hydroponics farm without the use of aeration. This cuts down so much on the resources needed and the cost of running airstones in large scale farms.
This is great for solar applications for indoor farming / growing because you only need to run the grow lights (and maybe a fan) to keep the plants thriving. I have never seen anyone do this and from experiments I have been doing it actually works great.
Look up the Kratky method of hydroponics for more info.
Basic building blocks of a hydroponic system
Waterproof basin, depending on how your system is a lid to drill holes to place the plants in.
Hydroponic Solution or liquid nutrients.
Small seed start greenhouse.
Net cups or Pool noodles, anything to hold the plants.
Grow lights or natural lights
Think of this as a customizable, modular system. You might have a sunroom or patio or greenhouse so you can cut the artificial grow lights. Maybe you have a fish tank and can do aquaponics instead and skip nutrient solutions. Use rainwater instead of tap or gather it from a river. Do whatever fits your life, scale it up, scale it down. Do whatever you want and what works for you!
A Solarpunk / DIY approach to Hydroponics
Following a DIY approach, we can have amazing hydroponics systems made from recycled materials and “trash”. With tupperware, pool noodles, old totes, and salvaged lamps you can set up an indoor vertical garden with very little upfront cost.
Keep on Growin' with Mike VanDuzee is where I first saw someone using tupperware as a growing container along with the pool noodle trick for net cups.
Here is a video of his where he explains what he did
For the vessels, you can use anything that can hold water and not break. Use your imagination. Tupperware, buckets, storage bins, anything. I used vinyl downspouts for gutters as vessels for small starter plants.
Then get a 1 3/4 inch hole saw and drill holes in the top. You can use a slightly bigger one if you have it. I tried to stay under 2 inches so all the containers are modular and you can switch to using netcups if you want to (though after using pool noodles instead netcups seem like a real waste of time, money and effort).
Protip on drilling holes in Tupperware lids:
To not crack the lids, don’t put alot of pressure when you are drilling in. Think of it as melting the plastic, don’t press too hard but just enough to have the bit cut / melt the holes. If the lid does crack that’s ok as long as it still is in kinda one piece.
The spacing depends on how bushy or large your plants are. Above are lettuce, spinach, a random berry bush, and a snake plant cutting. These plants are still young and growing, once it gets crowded I can move them to a container to give them more room.
Cut pool noodles into 1 inch sections then cut a notch out to let them fit in your drilled holes. The little extra bit cut-out can be used as a wedge when you have really small plants and want to keep them in place. Also helps stop any insects from getting in the water.
Here is a video showing exactly what this looks like in depth.
Next you need a nutrient solution.
MASTERBLEND 4-18-38 is a good solution though you can go to any hydroponics store and ask if they carry any other nutrient solutions. This is really a grey area, you will have to try out a couple of methods on what works. So far this masterblend stuff has worked though I need to do a lot more research into this part. You can also make your own with leaf mold or a bunch of other methods like with worm juice and stuff but I haven’t tried that yet so I can’t recommend it just yet. Recently I switched to Fox Farm grow big and Fox Farm big bloom for later stages of growth. It’s been realy good and is convenient because it is a liquid. Mix 1/4 cup to a 5 gallon bucket of water. Follow the instructions on the bottle.
Even better is using foxfarms hydroponic solutions. Follow the bottle instructions, super simple and easy. Search on secondhand markets like facebook marketplace, sometimes people sell huge bottles for cheap.
Then you need light.
Depending on your use case you might have these outside, especially if you live in a sub tropical area that might not have much of a winter. You can also start an indoor farm / vertical farm with cheap grow lights. To start out you don’t have to buy expensive grow light panels (Unless you want to). You can get grow bulbs from your local big box store for like $10. That is the low end, if you have the money consider getting better bulbs.
Now you can use any lamp you have lying around or find. So then the lamp gives off light that also grows plants. If you are going to use electricity might as well put it to good use.
TLDR for my ADHD friends
Grow food from trash or recycled items, just need a vessel to hold water and nutrient solution and the sun or grow lights. Grow organic fruits and veggies outdoors or indoors year-round no matter the season.
Basics of how it all works:
Making vessels (You can use tupperware or any plastic container)
Using pool noodle net cups and downspouts
Growing outdoors / the founder of this offgrid growing system Doctor Kratky