Starting your own hydroponic system can be a daunting task. There are so many different methods and so much information that it can make your head spin. But when it comes to hydroponics, starting off simple is the way to go, like many things in life you learn as you go.

By investing in a simple hydroponic system at first you can see what works for you and what does not. Any hydroponic system has the basics: you will need plants, a container, water, a way to anchor your plants, nutrients, and a light source.

Getting started

First you need to decide what you want to plant. Because some plants grow better with certain systems, it is important to know what will work for you, what lighting you will need and how much space you need.

Get your lighting right

Next you must choose a light source. Light is one of the most important factors of your hydroponic system. These systems can be placed either indoors or outdoors. If you are using your system indoors and do not have the sun as a light source, you will need an adequate alternative. You must determine your light spectrum. Different plants require a different light spectrum. Leafy greens require a cooler spectrum while fruit plants require a warmer spectrum.

A few different light options are:

  • LED grow lights – They are energy-efficient and have a longer lifespan. They also come in a range of colours which allows you to customise the light to the specific needs of your plants. They might initially be more expensive but will save you money in in the long run.
  • High-Pressure Sodium (HPS) grow lights – They are popular for hydroponic container farms and produce a high-intensity light. They are more affordable than LED lights.
  • Metal Halide grow lights – They are like HPS lights, but produce a cooler spectrum of light. They are less energy-efficient than LED lights and more expensive than HPS lights.
  • Fluorescent grow lights – These are cost effective for smaller hydroponic systems. They are best for seedlings and vegetative growth.
  • Plasma grow light – These are a newer type of grow light and produce a full spectrum of light, like natural sunlight. They are energy efficient and long lasting, but their initial costs are high.

Also keep in mind how you are going to mount your lights:

  • Ceiling-mounted – These lights are typically mounted to the ceiling and allow you to maximise the use of vertical space. They are easy to adjust and move.
  • Wall-mounted – These are attached to the wall and are a good option for smaller systems.
  • Free-standing – These lights are mounted on a movable object and placed next to the system. Aspects to consider when choosing your lights are the cost, the intensity, the light spectrum, and the area coverage.

What makes plants grow?

Next on your list is a grow medium. Once again, the type of plant will determine your grow medium, but also keep in mind the water retention, cost, aeration levels and pH stability.

Types of grow mediums include:

  • Rockwool
  • Expanded clay pebbles
  • Oasis cube
  • Coco fibre/chips
  • Perlite
  • Vermiculite
  • Rock

Feeding your plants:

The most important part to make your plants grow are the nutrients. The function of the nutrients solution is to supply the plant roots with water, oxygen, and essential mineral elements in soluble form.

The basic nutrients are:

  • Nitrogen (N): Promotes healthy leaf growth and aids in the production of proteins and enzymes.
  • Phosphorus (P): Helps root development and flower formation
  • Potassium (K): Helps with overall plant health and disease resistance.

Secondary nutrients are:

  • Calcium (Ca): Essential for cell wall structure and stability.
  • Magnesium (Mg): Involved in chlorophyll production.
  • Sulphur (S): Helps with protein synthesis and enzyme activity. Micronutrients are also essential for plant growth but are only required in small quantities.

These are:

  • Iron (Fe): For chlorophyll production and energy transfer within cells.
  • Manganese (Mn): Involved in enzyme activation and helps plants withstand stress conditions.
  • Zinc (Zn): Needed for the synthesis of growth hormones and promotes root development.
  • Copper (Cu): Aids in the formation of lignin, which strengthens cell walls.
  • Boron (B): Influences cell division and carbohydrate metabolism.
  • Molybdenum (Mo): Necessary for nitrogen fixation and helps convert nitrate into ammonia.
  • Chlorine (Cl): Involved in photosynthesis and osmotic regulation. You can buy a premade solution and there is a wide range of these available. All you need to do with a premade solution is dilute it with water and it is ready. These are also formulated by experts and ensure your plant receives a balanced diet. If you are starting out this may be the best option for you.

Home-made nutrients however offer more flexibility and gives you control over what you feed your plants. This will help if you are growing a variety of crops which each has its own nutrient requirements.

Keep that pH balanced

Plants can only take in nutrients within a specific pH balance, so ensuring your pH is balanced, is crucial.

To check your pH levels, you can get:

  • An electronic meter
  • Litmus test strips
  • A liquid test kit

Build your own

If you want to try out hydroponics, why not start with a Deep-Water Culture (DWC) system at home. These systems are the easiest which you can build and maintain at home. With the DWC, plants grow with their roots submerged directly in nutrientrich water. At home you can use storage containers or buckets. The water in a DWC system does not need to recirculate and remains sitting in the reservoir for the entire duration of the plant’s life.

This means you have to aerate the water to replenish the oxygen. In other soil-based systems air pore spaces provide oxygen for roots. With recirculating systems, the water is aerated by being pumped around. With a home DWC system, this can be done by using an air pump with an air stone attached, same as the ones used in fish tanks.

For this system you will need:

  • Storage container or bucket
  • Net pots
  • Air pump with air stone
  • Hard-water liquid nutrients
  • pH Down
  • pH meter
  • Measuring beaker
  • Pipettes
  • Hole saw
  • Drill

First start with your container or bucket. The deeper the container, the more stable the nutrient solution will be. Light should not be able to penetrate your container because this could lead to the growth of algae in your water. Next drill holes in the container lid. The plants will grow in net pots; these are pots with plenty of holes for roots to grow through. You will have to drill holes in the lid to make space for the pots. The pots need to be bigger than the holes, so they do not fall through. Keep the size of the mature plants in mind when measuring the spaces between the holes. Assemble your air pump. It should remain outside your container.

Now you can fill your container, add your nutrients, and ensure the pH level is balanced. Do this once you have placed your container where you want it. Fill it almost to the top with water and leave a one to two centimetre space at the top. Follow the instructions on your nutrient bottle. Measure your pH balance because tap water will have a pH balance of its own and this may not be suitable for your plant’s growth. Phosphoric acid can bring your pH balance down. Ensure you wear gloves and mix the solution well after adding the phosphoric acid

Now you assemble your system. Plug in your pump and place the air stone in the container, then secure the lid. Place your plants in the net pots and add them to the solution. Keep up with your maintenance by ensuring the water level does not drop. The roots must have sufficient contact with the water. Keep an eye on your pH level; you can do this every time you top up your water. You can clean the container and replace the water every 14 to 21 days.

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