Tell me about home hydroponics

My girlfriend wants to grow some vegetables at home using hydroponics, we live in an apartment with about 10 to 12 meters worth of balconies so I suppose there’s enough space to grow stuff for two people.

Having no experience growing anything but hair and toenails it would be nice if someone could give me the Straight Dope on this.

I’ve seen several systems, vertical, with planters stacked around a vertical pipe, or one on top of the other with water dripping successively from the one on top to the one bellow; then there’s the pipe contraptions, with either zig-zagging or parallel pipes with holes at regular intervals for the plants. I also saw a system that uses a Ferris Wheel type of setup were the plants grow towards a central light source and are dipped in water at the bottom of each rotation, pretty cool, not sure if it’s practical.

So, many options, no idea; suggestions welcomed!

Do you like fish?

Sorry, no idea about any of this, but the concept above intrigues me.




What he meant to say was “vegetables… riiiiight!” <overt wink> <toking gesture>

I like fish, but we are looking to make something smaller and simpler.

Oh, I see…
Vegetables, not “vegetables” wink-wink-nudge-nudge.

If we’d be after that I’d ask my brother… :stuck_out_tongue:

Just wait until you go google hydroponic stuff, especially the lighting setups. A few years back, I got a big compact fluorescent light with a Mogul base and that drew 200 watts (not emitted 200 watts of light… drew 200 watts of current!) in order to keep my Meyer Lemon tree healthy inside during the winter.

My wife and I make jokes about being on some kind of law-enforcement list now, because just about EVERY hydroponic site seemed to be about 70% pot-related, and 30% indoor vegetable growing.

Yeah, if you do home hydroponics you’re going to get accused of growing marijuana at some points, possibly frequently.

I just want to link to some pictures of hydroponic chard to prove my set up really did grow vegetables. As well as a lot of algae at one point.

I’ve done hydroponics twice in my life, once with my dad in the early 1970’s and once with my landlord (that’s where the linked pictures come from) more recently. Both used an ebb-and-flow system, the main differences were in the details controlling the ebbing and flowing. It’s a fairly simple DIY method for beginners.

You get two big buckets, a lot of pea gravel, food-grade tubing, a (clean, of course) a pump, two timers like you’d use for lights when you’re away on vacation, grow lights, and growth solution. Put the buckets one above the other (we used saw horses and an old door to support the upper one in the linked pictures). Fill the upper bucket with pea gravel. Fill the lower bucket with growth solution. The pump goes in the lower bucket. Use the tubing and whatever plumbing connections are required to have the water enter the upper bucket from above (you can see this connection in the first linked picture). You have another tube underneath draining the bucket from it’s lowest internal point. So, the pump lifts the liquid to the upper bucket and the liquid flows through the gravel until the pump shuts off, at which point it ebbs away to the lower bucket. Hence, “ebb and flow”. The pea gravel retains moisture between “floodings”, but the ebbing also draws air into the gravel as well, which keeps the roots from drowning. You have to tweak things a bit, so you run the cycle often enough to keep things moist but not so often you get problems with water-logged roots. Or runaway algae. That’s where the timers come in. We had a timer for the pump that allowed multiple “on” and “off” periods per day. The second timer is for the lights. 14-16 hours of light seem to work well for many plants. You need the lights close to the plants. Many plants will need support, not just things like peas but also things like tomatoes or peppers. In some cases, it may make more sense to mount a light vertically next to the plant rather than horizontally over it. Or both, if you have enough lights.

There are a bajillion recipes on line for growth fluids. I “cheated” and used Miracle Gro which, combined with the naturally mineral rich well water around here, worked pretty well. There are, I admit, better ways to go about this but I was on a shoestring budget and I had a large box of the blue stuff. As you can see, it did work.

You can do a lot of testing to optimize your situation. Or, like me, you can just change out the growth fluid every two weeks (the nutrients gets depleted, among other things).

Or - if all of that seems too much initial investment and work - many big box stores have ready-made kits for hydroponic herb gardens to sit in your kitchen, complete with grow lights. Unfortunately, their capacity to produce foliage is minimal. Mine was more work but kept two families in fresh greens all winter for a couple years. Chard, spinach, radishes, and lettuce were our main product. I’d recommend any of those for a first time effort. Some other things, particularly root vegetables, are more finicky to produce.

If you have any further questions fire away.

OP, can I ask why you’re not just growing container gardens? In dirt?

Hydroponics seem to provide a cleaner, more compact solution for growing stuff in an apartment balcony.
What we have in mind is something like this DIY Hydroponic Garden Tower to be put in one of the balconies.

I read a little about the ebb and flow method, I was under the impression that it would first fill up the top container and then drain it down to the lower one, I suppose that with the method you described you need some form of irrigation system so that the water is distributed evenly at the top to trickle down, something like tubes with perforations along their length?
Or is it that the drain is small enough that it can’t keep up with the pump filling up the upper container?

Besides changing the growth fluid every two weeks how much attention did the setup require? Also, how do you start up, directly from seeds or you planted the seeds somewhere else until they germinated and reached a certain size?

We are not planning to use artificial lighting though, just sunlight since we have that in excess here in Bangkok.

No pot, honest. :slight_smile:

As I said, we are not thinking of using artificial illumination, actually I’m even thinking of using a solar panel to run the pump during the day; but I have to see if it’s possible because the management frowns upon installing things like satellite dishes on the balconies, plants are OK though.

Drain is so small it can’t keep up with the pump.

I didn’t want to turn my post into a dissertation (it was long enough already) but what we did for our most recent set up was adjust the fluid level so that the upper container would flood, but the pump would shut off before overfilling the upper container. We actually used sump pumps for this, which would shut off when the fluid level got low enough in the lower bucket, but resume pumping again when it got deep enough. We’d do a 10 minute interval of flood 3 to 4 times a day.

When my dad and I did it the method was even more low tech. The fluid bucket was a gallon milk jug. To flood, you physically raised it above the bucket with the plant (also a gallon milk jug - yes, my hydroponics always seems to involve quite a bit of recycling), flood, and 10 minutes later lower the fluid jug below the other. Basically, gravity and muscle powered. One of my daily chores was raising and lowering milk jugs full of growth medium. I did half of it, dad did the other half.

Once everything was set up we’d check in with it 2-3 times a week, although there were a couple times we only dropped by once a week (we used a vacant apartment in the building where I live for our “farm”)

The initial set up is a bit more labor intensive. Some people get really involved with analysis and optimizing everything. Me, I take a MUCH more casual approach, but then, my purpose was to get some fresh vegetables without excessive time and labor on my part, not producing for commercial profit. How far you want to optimize is entirely up to you. I will be the first to acknowledge my set-ups have always been crude and on some level inefficient. That’s fine - I got what I wanted out of them. Other people want much more, but that requires more from them.

Started directly from seeds. No reason to do otherwise with our set up. Other methods may or may not require something else.

That should work just fine :slight_smile:

We started using natural light in the south-facing room of the apartment we used. That worked May-July, but from November-February we just don’t get that much natural light no matter what you do, you have to use artificial lights in my area during part of the year.

I like the tower you linked to. It would have the advantage that the system is already designed, which will save you considerable time, effort, and tweaking in the initial set up.

Thank you, Broomstick; I’ll see if I have time to start building something this weekend.

Sounds nice. But alot of work for just a few tomatoes.

It’s not hydroponic, but you could get white plastic grow bags between 5-10 gal., fill them with 80% pro-mix 20% composted manure, tomato-tone time release fertilizer and some fish emulsion for liquid feedings. It’s a pretty easy setup and it works.

The initial set up is a bit of work, but once you get it running it I have found it winds up to be less labor intensive than your average backyard garden.

I agree that the easiest way to get tomatoes is to simply go to a store that sells them, but some folks like to grow plants.

It’s not just about food, it’s also about making something for and with my GF; that on itself is rewarding.
We jog together, travel together, watch movies together, and now we’ll plant tomatoes together. :smiley:

Well yeah then, makes a good hobby. You might try one of those upside down tomato planters.

Another one is to plant a small herb garden where you can grow say oregano, basil, and other spices.

I did a couple of these this year. My experience is that they’re quite dependent on watering; their columnar shape (and partial lid) means they don’t get enough water from rainfall, like an open-ground planting or an open-top container. But they can have good yields.

Window boxes are ideal for these, as long as you’re not harvesting industrial-sized batches of herbs. I have several long/narrow window boxes fastened along my porch railing on the back porch; I can accommodate two plants per box, and that’s enough for a decent culinary variety.