If you’re one of those gardeners who thinks our growing season just isn’t long enough, and even starting seeds in February doesn’t satisfy your desire for an endless summer, then maybe you should try planting an indoor winter garden with a hydroponic growing system.
Hydroponic gardening is simply a means of growing plants in a nutrient/water solution rather than in soil. There are many benefits to putting your plants on a soil-free diet, the biggest being the reduction of pest and disease to your plants. Growing in sterile growing medium excludes soil-borne fungus infections, mildews, and molds, and reduces the occurrence of most other fungus and insect problems. And there’s no weeding!
In fact, in a properly run hydroponic unit, your plants will probably be healthier than those you grow in your summer garden outdoors. With a hydroponic system, nutrients and water are delivered in ideal portions at all time, creating healthy plants that are more resistant to disease, insects or infections.
Other benefits usually include shorter yield times for vegetable crops with higher yield volume and reduced space requirements, since roots don’t have to spread out looking for nutrients and water.
Perhaps the greatest benefit for holiday harried homeowners, hydroponic systems are usually automated, so you spend less time tending your indoor garden.
What can you grow hydroponically?
Just about anything that can be grown outdoors can be grown indoors in a hydroponic system, but most people grow vegetable crops. Why suffer through another winter of hard, tasteless tomatoes when you can pick delicious, juicy fruits every day?
And tomatoes aren’t the only crop. Other vegetables that make excellent indoor crops include artichokes, asparagus, beans, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, carrots, cauliflowers, celery, cucumbers, eggplants, leeks, lettuce, melons, onions, parsnips, peas potatoes, radishes, rhubarb, spinach, squash, tomatoes, and yams. Berries, such as raspberries and strawberries can also be grown in hydroponic units. Fruit trees can be started in a unit and transplanted outdoors later. Herbs mature rapidly, require little care, and also do very well grown hydroponically.
What do you need to get started?
Basically you need a light source, water source, nutrient solutions, and a hydroponic unit that allows air to get to the roots. There are several different types of hydroponic systems. One of the more common is a “flood and drain” system that periodically floods with a water/nutrient solution a container in which plant roots grow, then drains the solution allowing roots to get the oxygen they need. Size and space requirements for such a system are modest, and you can put several different types of plants and sizes in this system if all plants carry the same pH requirement. Zucchini, cucumbers, melons and any vegetable that vine out are good in these systems.
Another type of hydroponic system uses jet nozzles to provide a constant spray of water and nutrients to the plant roots. The Aero Flow and PVC pipe garden systems are two examples. These systems are very compact and ideal for apartment or condo dwellers. Lettuce, peppers, and herbs are good plants for these systems.
Drip systems are designed with a drip ring continuously supplying water and nutrients by an air pump. This system is excellent for raising large house plants as well strawberries and tomatoes.
Plants in these systems can either be suspended so their roots dangle in the space that is either flooded and drained or sprayed, or they can be planted in a variety of soilless media. Common media used include rockwool or stonewool, vermiculite, perlite, coco cubes, and and clay pebbles called hydrotons.
Lights and Nutrients
Outdoors, plants get all the light and much of the nutrients they need from nature. Indoors, they need a little more help. Even a bright, sunny room will not usually provide the lighting requirements plants need for healthy growth. Artificial lights can either supplement indirect sunlight or provide the complete light requirements for plants.
Types of lights include metal halide lamps, sodium vapor lamps, gro-lights or fluorescent and incandescent lights. HID (high-intensity discharge) systems typically come in 1000, 600, 400 and 250 watt output options, and choices for light type and intensity are usually made based upon crop requirements.
With an eye on environmental consciousness, one of the newest and most energy efficient light sources is the T-5 fluorescent fixture. This unit provides a high output, low-heat light source, and is more economical and energy efficient than traditional HID systems. For even more energy efficiency, four-season hobby style greenhouses have been very successful for indoor growing with little supplement in lighting.
Nutrient needs for indoor, soilless growing are a little more complicated than for your outdoor garden. Many micronutrients readily available in soil are lacking in hydroponic gardening, so different fertilizers that include both micronutrients and macronutrients may be required. System pH balancing is also a little more challenging in a soilless environment, and will require regular monitoring and adjustment.
That’s all there is to it. So, if you’re already suffering gardening withdrawal, consider ditching the dirt and making this a hydroponic holiday!
Resources for Hydroponics Products and Information:
1225 North Warson Road
St Louis MO 63132
Website: Worm’s Way
Hydroponic Society of America
Website: Hydroponic Society of America
The Indoor Gardener Magazine
Website: The Indoor Gardener Magazine
Progressive Gardening Trade Association
10210 Leatherleaf Court
Manassas VA 20111
Website: Progressive Gardening Trade Association