No digging or carrying bags of soil with Kiddie Pool

Easy Hydroponics for Beginners

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By: Richard Godke

Easy hydroponics are a passive system that produces a large amount of flowers or vegetables, very quickly, in a small space. Hydroponics is the process of raising plants without soil. How can this be? The plants are started in a soil-less medium like: rockwool, foam cubes, or compressed peat pellets (Jiffy-7). To start the plants, the roots should just touch the nutrient liquid; some of the roots will grow deep into the solution.  The nutrient solution contains easy to obtain fertilizers and other elements that are found in your local big-box stores, hardware, or garden stores.

Easy hydroponics or soil-less gardening is a perfect utilization of rooftops, patios or yards with poor soil quality. Hydroponic gardening provides essential nutrients quickly to the roots on a very consistent basis resulting in better growth and higher yields. Hydroponics provides a more stable soil fertility, temperature, and moisture than gardening with traditional soil. Because of the ample nutrients available, plantings can be denser. Soil-less gardening greatly reduces the majority of soil born insects and diseases, reducing the need for pesticides. Easy hydroponic gardening uses less water per square foot, compared to gardening with traditional soil. Hydroponic gardening helps to eliminate the back breaking work of carrying bags and bags of soil or the endless job of hoeing weeds. For a good video on easy hydroponic gardening, check this out:Http://Www.Youtube.Com/Watch?V=Odyeffycvky.

This article shares with you three different easy hydroponic systems.  In these passive floating systems, no water circulating pumps, aeration pumps or engineering skills are required.  Pumps are common in commercial systems. The passive floating hydroponic gardening system holds the plants just on top of the nutrient solution in cups with drainage holes, supported by a sheet of Styrofoam™™.  I will first share with you Passive Hydroponic Universal Instructions that will help you get started. These instructions include: selecting crops, choosing containers, starting plants indoors, mixing fertilizer solutions, and starting plants in hydroponic solution. I will then describe the materials needed to construct three different systems including: plastic tote, wading pool, and wood frame systems.

Easy Hydroponics: Passive Universal Instructions**

Caution Even a small amount of water can be a possible drowning hazard for children. Please make certain that your hydroponic system is well protected from small children.

Selecting Crops

Cool season plants love this passive hydroponic system.  I recommend a spring and fall planting of leafy green vegetables that include: lettuce (bibb, Boston, leaf, and Romaine), mustard greens, bok choy, mint, chives, and kale. Warm season crops that can be planted after the early spring crop is done include: Swiss chard, basil, cucumbers, watercress, and zinnia, an annual flower.

Choosing Containers

This article guides you through building three different passive floating gardens. The sizes include: a 6.25-gallon tote, a kiddie 4-5′ wading pool, and a 4’ x 8’ plastic lined wooden structure. Any noncorrosive container can be used, including water tanks, buckets, or tubs that hold water and are 4 to 6 inches deep. To hold the plant roots just at the surface of the solution you will need net pots or Styrofoam™ coffee cups. Net pots can be purchase from a commercial hydroponic supplier.

Cut cup holes in a 1½” thick Styrofoam™ sheet large enough to allow the net pots or cups to drop 1/8 inch below the bottom. A 3” net pot or a standard Styrofoam™ cup will need a 2½” hole. A 2” net pot will require a 1¾” hole. .  Standard Styrofoam™ cups need to have 1/4″ slits cut in the sides and the bottom to let the roots grow through.

Purchasing Transplants

Purchasing seedling transplants is the easiest way for beginners to get started. It is easy to find a large selection of low cost, green leafy vegetable varieties in any garden center. In most cases the seedlings have been started in a soil-less mixture. It is common for these garden centers to have the plants displayed outside so they are already acclimated to the outdoor environment.

Starting Plants from Seed Indoors

I have had great success starting plants in compressed peat pellets (Jiffy-7). The pellets are very easy to water and show good resistance to dampening off disease. Start the seeds approximately three weeks prior to moving them outside. The plants need to be fully rooted with leaves approximately 1 to 1 and 1/2” inches long before moving them outdoors. It is critical that you harden off your plants before setting them out. Hardening off is the process of slowly acclimating plants to a more sunny, cool, windy outdoor environment. A week before transplanting, place your plants outside in a shaded area for approximately an hour. Then extend the time one hour each day and place in more direct sunlight each day for the remaining part of the week. Hardening off will have a very positive effect on the success rate of your transplants.

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Figure 2. Nutrients Needed For Easy Hydroponics – Floating Garden. Photo Courtesy Of Cooperative Extension Service, University Of Florida, Publication HS184

Mixing Fertilizer Solutions

Add 1 to 2 level teaspoons of water-soluble 20–20–20 or 18-18 -21 fertilizer with micronutrients to each gallon of water (J. R. Petters inc. All Purpose 20-20-20 Water Soluble Fertilizer, or Miracle-Gro® Water Soluble Tomato Plant Food 18-18-21) and ½ to 1 teaspoon of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate). See figure 2. Additional calcium may need to be added if you have soft water. Stir until dissolved. In most cases you can grow an entire crop of greens without changing or adding solution. Monitor the water level and add water if it becomes low. If it rains alot you may need to add additional fertilizer and Epsom salts at the same ratio to compensate for the additional volume of water. The pH level of the solution should be checked with a simple pH tester that can be purchased at a pool supply store or garden center. The final pH of the solution should be 5.5 to 6.5. Adjustments can be made upward by adding agricultural line.  By adding aluminum sulfate, you can lower the pH. You can grow two crops of greens in the same solution before the entire solution needs to be changed.

Starting Plants in Passive Hydroponic System

Transplants should be flat bottomed, fully rooted in a soil-less media consisting of: rockwool, foam cubes, or compressed peat pellets. I would not recommend coconut fiber, sand, Perlite, or Vermiculite, because it doesn’t form a ball, which makes it more difficult to transplant. A flat bottom seedling makes good contact with the solution in the bottom of the cup. Do not add, remove, or pack the soil-less mix in the cups. This soil-less root ball should be surrounded by air. By having the roots extend slightly out of the nutrients the plant can absorb needed oxygen through the exposed roots. Use a toothpick can be used to prop the plant so it stays upright in the cup. It is important to remember that the plants roots should not be covered by the solution. Do not place the cup deeper than 1/8” into the solution. If the plant’s roots seem too wet, place the cup on its side to reduce contact of the solution.

Figure 3. Easy Hydroponics – Floating Garden with Growing Lettuce Root System. Photo Courtesy Of Cooperative Extension Service, University Of Florida, Publication HS184.

Easy Hydroponics: Tote with Styrofoam™
Floating System

This easy hydroponic system is low cost, easy to build and easy to operate. It’s an excellent way to explore soil-less gardening for the beginner. This is a reliable system I used with classroom
4-H clubs to encourage participation in the gardening program. I’m not aware of any of the demonstrations that were not successful. You can build this hydroponic system for less than $10. I have added two larger hydroponic systems below that you may want to try after you have success with this easy hydroponic passive tote system. See figure 3.

Materials Needed:  **

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see plant starting instructions in “Passive Hydroponic Universal Instructions” above.

  • 6.25-gallon (24.38″L x 15.13″W x 6.13″H) dark colored hard sided plastic tote
  • 1½” thick Styrofoam™ sheet 24″L x 15″W to fit the opening of the tote
  • 4-net pots or Styrofoam™ coffee cups**
  • Water soluble fertilizer**
  • Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate)**
  • 4-Plants**

Equipment –

permanent marker, sharp knife, hole saw, measuring spoons, water to fill the tote.

Construction Steps

Figure 4. Drilling Holes in Styrofoam for Easy Hydroponics. Photo Courtesy Of Cooperative Extension Service, University Of Florida, Publication HS184
  1. Place Styrofoam™ on a flat surface, set the bottom (smallest part) of the tote on top of the Styrofoam™ and trace around the bottom of the tote with the permanent marker.
  2. Using a sharp knife, cut along the trace line through the Styrofoam™ to form a rectangle. The rectangle must be able to freely float up and down in the tote as the water level changes.
  3. Using a hole saw, drill 4 holes away from the edges from the edge to help prevent breakage according to directions in the container section in the “Passive Hydroponic Universal Instructions” above. See figure 4.
  4. Place the net pots or Styrofoam™ cups in each hole.
  5. Place the tote in an area that is level and will get 6 to 8 hours of sun per day.
  6. Fill tote with thoroughly dissolved fertilizer solution to about 2 inches of the top of the tote. Float the Styrofoam™ sheet on the fertilizer solution in the tote.
  7. Drop the plants into each net or cup making sure that the roots are in contact with some of the solution.
  8. Watch the plants closely for the first couple days to make certain that they are not wilting and remain in contact with the fertilizer solution. You should see noticeable growth within one week.
  9. Enjoy fresh nutritious crisp greens directly out of your soil-less garden.

 

Easy Hydroponics: Wading Pool1 with Styrofoam™ Floating System

Figure 5. Passive Easy Hydroponics – Wading Pool Floating Garden. Photo Courtesy Of Cooperative Extension Service, Kansas State University, Publication “Wading Pool Hydroponics”

The easy hydroponics wading pool system is low-cost, easy to construct and can produce plenty of crisp nutritious lettuce for the family. This is a great first time experience producing food in a soil-less garden. You can build this hydroponic system for less than $20. See figure 5. Here is the link to the K-State Research and Extension, 4-H publication that I have adapted these plans used, Wading Pool Hydroponics.

Materials Needed:

**see plant starting instructions in “Passive Hydroponic Universal Instructions” above.

  • Hard sided plastic wading pool 4-5 ft. in diameter
  • 1½” thick Styrofoam™ sheet to fit the opening of the pool
  • 12-15 net pots or Styrofoam™ coffee cups**
  • Water soluble 20-20-20 fertilizer**
  • Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate)**
  • 1- Packet of seeds and 12 to 15 Jiffy-7 pots or 12-15 started plants **

For hydroponic supplies check out: http://www.greenhousemegastore.com/category/hydroponics.

Equipment –

permanent marker, sharp knife, hole saw, measuring spoons, water to fill the pool (measure how many gallons are needed to fill the pool before you mix the growing solution.

Construction Steps

Figure 6. Easy Hydroponics – Wading Pool: Lettuce Plug Grown In a Compressed Peat Pellet. Photo Courtesy Of Cooperative Extension Service, Kansas State University, Publication “Wading Pool Hydroponics”
  1. Place Styrofoam™ on a flat surface, set the bottom (smallest part) of the wading pool on top of the Styrofoam™ and trace around the bottom of the pool with the permanent marker.
  2. Using a sharp knife, cut along the trace line through the Styrofoam™ to form a circle. The circle must be able to freely float up and down in the pool as the water level changes.
  3. Using a hole saw, drill 12 to 15 holes that are at least 6 inches from the edge and 12 inches apart inside the circle to help prevent breakage according to directions in the container section in the “Passive Hydroponic Universal Instructions” above.
  4. Place the net pots or Styrofoam™ cups in each hole.
  5. Place pool in an area that is level and will get 6 to eight hours of sun per day.
  6. Fill pool with dissolved fertilizer solution to about 4 inches of the top of the pool. Float the Styrofoam™ sheet in the pool.
  7. Drop the plants into each cup making sure that the roots are in contact with the solution. See figure 6
  8. Watch the plants closely for the first couple days to make sure that they are not wilting and remain in contact with the fertilizer solution. You should notice notable growth within one week.
  9. Enjoy fresh nutritious crisp greens directly out of your soil-less garden.

Easy Hydroponics: Wooden Frame with Styrofoam™ Floating System2

Figure 7. Healthy Lettuce Being Grown in a Standard 4×8 Ft Floating Easy Hydroponics. Photo Courtesy Of Cooperative Extension Service, University Of Florida, Publication HS184

This easy hydroponics system uses a large wooden frame that is big enough to supply nutritious greens for the whole family and neighborhood. See figure 7. This system was designed by the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Florida, but it will work anywhere in the country. You can build this hydroponic system for under $50. The biggest drawback I see with the system is the plastic liner; it could be susceptible to rodent damage. For the beginner, I would recommend starting with leafy green vegetables, concentrating on the spring and fall seasons. Warm season vegetable crops are harder to manage in a passive hydroponic system. For the complete extension publication go to:  http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/hs184.

Materials Needed:

  • 3 – 2” X 6” X 8 ft. lengths of treated lumber; cut one of the boards into two 4 ft. lengths
  • 12 – #10 x 4-in Philips-Head Zinc-Plated Interior/Exterior Wood Screws
  • 1 – 4’ x 8’ x 1½” sheet of Styrofoam™ insulation board
  • 1 – 12’ x 6’ six mill polyethylene plastic sheet
  • 3 – 1 x 2 x 8 Spruce-Pine Furring Strip; cut one of the strips into two 4 ft. lengths
  • 24 – 11-Gauge 1¼” galvanized roofing nails to hold down furring strips and plastic
  • 36 net pots or Styrofoam™ coffee cups**
  • Water soluble 20-20-20 fertilizer**
  • Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate)**
  • 36 started plants **

Equipment –

power drill with head Philips screw attachment, 4” x 1/8” drill bit for screw pilot holes, hole saw or sharp knife, hammer

Construction Steps

Figure 8. Lettuce Transplant in Net Pot for Easy Hydroponics. Photo Courtesy Of Cooperative Extension Service, University Of Florida, Publication HS184
  1. Connect the 4 ft. and 8 ft. lengths of treated lumber to form a rectangle. Make certain corners are square.
  2. Drill three pilot holes in each corner and insert screws.
  3. Check the ground where the frame sit and remove any debris that could puncture the plastic liner.
  4. Place the frame in an area that is level and will get six to eight hours of sun daily.
    Center the 12’ x 6’ six mill polyethylene plastic sheet in the bottom of the rectangle to form a trough.
  5. Put the long edge of the plastic sheet on the long edge of the rectangle. Secure by placing the furring strips over the plastic on the top edge and nail through the furring and the plastic into the wooden frame.
  6. Make sure the plastic sheet is pushed down into the bottom of each corner of the wooden frame. Be careful not to puncture the plastic liner.
  7. Secure the plastic with the furring and nails on the second long sides.
  8. Secure the plastic with the furring and nails on the remaining short sides.
  9. Place the Styrofoam™ sheet in the frame to make sure that the edges clear and that it can move freely up-and-down when the water is added.  Trim if needed.
  10. Drill holes according to directions in the container section in the “Passive Hydroponic Universal Instructions” above.
  11. Mix the nutrient solution thoroughly as recommended above in the “Passive Hydroponic Universal Instructions**” section. It should be at least 5 inches deep. This frame method will take approximately 50 gallons of solution.
  12. Check liner for leaks.
  13. Small punctures in the plastic can be repaired by cleaning and drying the surface and then applying waterproof glue on each side of the plastic.
  14. Place plants in net pots or Styrofoam™ cups making sure the roots are in contact with the solution. See figure 8.
  15. Watch the plants closely for the first couple days to make sure they are not wilting and remain in contact with the fertilizer solution. You should notice notable growth within one week.
  16. Enjoy fresh nutritious crisp greens directly out of your soil-less garden and be prepared to sell or give away some fresh produce.

The easy hydroponic passive floating system, regardless of size, is ideal for the beginning gardener. It is low cost, and gives gardeners with small space a way to produce large amount of quality vegetables. This easy hydroponics requires less work than traditional gardening. There is no need for tilling soil, toting and mixing big bags of soil, and no hoeing weeds in the hot sun. By following the “Passive Hydroponic Universal Instructions” above, you can use any size container and successfully produce great vegetables at home. The three examples of passive floating hydroponic systems give one a choice of a small, medium, or large system that are all low cost. I would encourage any new gardeners to try this easy hydroponics system for growing vegetables.

1Evelyn Neier, “Wading Pool Hydroponics”, Family Nutrition Program/ Junior Master Gardener/, 4-H Youth Development, funded by UDSA SNAP.

2M. Sweat, R. Tyson, and R. Hochmuch, “Building A Floating Hydroponic Garden” By Florida Cooperative Extension Service/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/hs184.

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rgodke

Rick Godke is a lifelong gardener since age 8. He studied agriculture and taught high school horticulture. He spent almost 20 years working as a County Extension Agent in three states where he educated farmers, home owners, and youth in the areas of production agriculture and home horticulture. Godke has trained adult Master Gardeners and school-age 4-H members in every aspect of gardening, as well as establishing community gardens. He has introduced two daylily varieties with the American Hermerocallis Society and has served as a national certified national daylily exhibition judge. https://plus.google.com/104974890596183747499?rel=author

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